Second Part of the Keynote address presented at the Vivekananda Jayanthi Lecture for Youth organized by the Bharateeya Vichara Kendram at Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum) on 12 January 2000 by Michel Danino

Western “Culture”

So far so good. But there is also an ignorant part in our angry young Indian’s diatribe, a hopelessly idealized view of the West, and a hopelessly distorted view of India’s heritage. Life in Western society is not as rosy as all that, and it has its share of corruption, poverty and illiteracy. But it also has far more essential problems—otherwise why should a number of Western thinkers speak with anguish of the West’s degeneration ? Why do we constantly hear of some American snatching a semiautomatic weapon and spraying passers-by with bullets ? Why do a hundred thousand U.S. students go to school and college every day carrying a weapon ? Is it the West or India which invented manic depression, child abuse, the psychopath and the serial killer ? Or even simply the “killer” instinct ? Why is it that few Western economies can survive without massive arms sales, most of the time to Third-World countries, thus fuelling hundreds of wars around the globe while at the same time preaching peace and human rights ? Do you know what is right now the hottest bone of contention in Europe ? —the beef war between Britain and France. A few weeks ago, a British M.P. landed at a French airport brandishing a piece of beef from her country ; not long earlier, her country’s prime minister proudly declared that beef was “central to British culture.” That was, in case you have forgotten, in defence of the “mad cows”—mad because they are fed waste from animal flesh. Which is madder, the cow or the man ? And which is more refined ? In France, some cattle is fed with recycled sewage. In that same country, supposedly the most cultured of the West, hunters organized in powerful associations and lobbies fiercely defend their right to kill ; the law permits them to enter your property in pursuit of an animal, you have no right to stop them ; every year they will sit in the path of migratory birds and shoot thousands of them in flight. Killing cranes or ducks or pigeons which have been tirelessly flying over country after country to their distant nesting grounds is the most refined of pleasures for those brutes who call themselves men and are proud of their “advanced civilization.” The other day, a Japanese woman killed her neighbour’s daughter because she was too much of a rival to her own daughter at school—maybe she thought that was what “cut-throat competition” should mean in practice ? Japan is not the West, you will say—well, in any case, it is flaunted as a triumph of Asia’s Westernization.

I could go on with this sinister enumeration for hours. But every society has its aberrations, you may say again, haven’t we got quite a good number of them in India ? We certainly do, and apparently more and more as Indian society clumsily tries to westernize itself, believing there lies the supreme panacea. But the instances I have quoted are not aberrations, they are the logical outcome of the selfish values of Western society, which is why those monstrosities are growing not rarer and rarer, but increasingly frequent, widespread, and insane.

Not long ago, an Indian observed the West closely and said :

[Its] institutions, systems, and everything connected with political governments have been condemned as useless ; Europe is restless, does not know where to turn. The material tyranny is tremendous. The wealth and power of a country are in the hands of a few men who do not work but manipulate the work of millions of human beings. By this power they can deluge the whole earth with blood. . . . The Western world is governed by a handful of Shylocks. All those things that you hear about—constitutional government, freedom, liberty, and parliaments—are but jokes. . . . The whole of Western civilisation will crumble to pieces in the next fifty years if there is no spiritual foundation.

This Indian’s birth anniversary we are commemorating today, and he spoke those words more than a hundred years ago, on his return from his first journey to the West. In case you find Swami Vivekananda too extreme, let me quote one of the Western thinkers I alluded to just before, a French historian of science, Pierre Thuillier, who wrote a few years ago a penetrating analysis of the maladies afflicting the West for all its talk of “progress” :

Westerners remain convinced that their mode of life is the privileged and definitive incarnation of “civilization” ; they are unable to understand that this “civilization” has become as fragile as an eggshell. At the end of the twentieth century, political, economic and cultural elites behave as if the gravity of the situation eluded them. . . . Those who profess to be progressive clearly no longer know what a culture is ; they no longer even realize that a society can continue to function more or less normally even as it has lost its soul. . . . In their eyes, a society is dead only when it is physically destroyed ; they do not realize that the decay of a civilization is inner before anything else.[2]

Or what about the great French writer André Malraux’s observation, “I see in Europe a carefully ordered barbarism”?[3] I could quote other Western thinkers to show that there was nothing extreme about Swami Vivekananda’s statement, though his prediction of fifty years may have been a little wide of the mark. But let me remind you that he criticized India’s own maladies equally severely, perhaps more severely than anyone else. Yet he saw too deeply to fall into the common trap of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and he always kept his rock-solid faith in Indian civilization. Moreover, in America and Europe he met with many dissatisfied Westerners who were anxious to understand India’s message. Their number has been steadily growing since then, among scholars and common people alike. The so-called “New Age” trend of the 1960s owed as much to India as to America ; a number of Western universities offer excellent courses on various aspects of Indian civilization, and if you want to attend some major symposium on Indian culture or India’s ancient history, you may have to go to the U.S.A. ; some physicists are not shy of showing parallels between quantum mechanics and yogic science ; ecologists call for a recognition of our deeper connection with Nature such as we find in the Indian view of the world ; a few psychologists want to learn from Indian insights into human nature ; hatha yoga has become quite popular, ashrams of various hues are not hard to come by, and gurus and lamas proliferate, some genuine, others less so ; any bookshop will have a corner for “Asian spirituality,” even if much of what is on offer is in the manner of “yoga without tears,” “Tantric secrets unveiled” or “God-realization in ten lessons.” In France, Buddhism is at present the fastest growing religion (even as churches are alarmed at a decreasing attendance, some forced to close), and more than half of the French population is said to believe in reincarnation and karma. All that, however jumbled or cheap or distorted at times, reflects an undeniable need, which neither science nor Western religions have been able to meet.

The historian Will Durant, writing in the 1950s, anticipated this phenomenon when he wrote :

It is true that, even across the Himalayan barrier, India has sent us such questionable gifts as grammar and logic, philosophy and fables, hypnotism and chess, and, above all, our numerals and our decimal system. But these are not the essence of her spirit ; they are trifles compared to what we may learn from her in the future.[4]

So, if we want to understand things at a slightly deeper level than that of the clichés of the day, we must allow our anger, however justified, to subside, and start asking a few serious questions. The first must be : Would there be in the West such a steadily growing interest in India—I mean in her spirituality and culture, not in her political and bureaucratic systems—would there be such a search for deeper things, however clumsy and confused, if our modern world was as perfect as we are told ? Shall we still say that Indian culture is just a bundle of superstitions ? In 1920, Sri Aurobindo summed up the whole problem in the following words :

The scientific, rationalistic, industrial, pseudo-democratic civilisation of the West is now in process of dissolution and it would be a lunatic absurdity for us at this moment to build blindly on that sinking foundation. When the most advanced minds of the occident are beginning to turn in this red evening of the West for the hope of a new and more spiritual civilisation to the genius of Asia, it would be strange if we could think of nothing better than to cast away our own self and potentialities and put our trust in the dissolving and moribund past of Europe.[5]

[2] Pierre Thuillier, The Great Implosion—Report on the Collapse of the West 1999-2002 (Paris : Fayard, 1995), p.17-19. [My apologies to the author for taking the liberty to use the present tense in this extract, while his whole book is written in the past tense, being humorously presented as a “report” written in 2081 by a commission of inquiry on the West’s collapse.]
[3] André Malraux, quoted by Pierre Thuillier, op. cit., p. 55.
[4] Will Durant, Story of Our Civilization, vol. I, Our Oriental Heritage (New York : Simon & Schuster, 1954), p. 633.
[5] “A Preface on National Education,” in The Hour of God (Pondicherry : Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1972, vol. 17), p. 194-196.

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